The Is and Isn’t of Memoir Part 2 by Connie Mae Inglis

Welcome back to Part 2 of my posts on what I’ve learned about memoir i.e., what memoir ISN’T and what memoir IS. Let’s continue on:

  1. Memoir is not a plot-driven genre. Rather (and this is something I’ve learned from Marion Roach Smith’s memoir classes), memoir is argument-driven. Huh? What does that mean?

Think about an autobiography, which generally tells the personal story of someone’s life in chronological order. That’s plot-driven. But in a memoir, each event shared from a person’s life has purpose i.e., each event proves or argues for the universal theme of the memoir.  These events can be, but usually aren’t, told chronologically.

Let’s take Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, as an example. This book follows Strayed’s journey as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail so it has a chronological aspect to it. However, the story also jumps back in time as Strayed thinks about who she was and then she returns to the present hike where she shows her progression of self-discovery. As she hikes, she heals of the past. As she hikes, she’s proving an argument i.e., that she has become resilient and whole—that she is no longer who she was. That’s the universal that draws the reader in and has made this memoir a best seller.

  • Memoir isn’t fact-driven or always factual. Rather, memoir is told as the author remembers it. Not how grandma remembers it or how your siblings remember it. In other words, memoir isn’t always true to fact—but it is true in the author’s mind. That’s what matters, because, remember, the purpose of memoir is to prove an argument, based on a universal that connects to the reader.

An excellent example of this is Lisa LeBlanc’s memoir, The Ninth Child. In her book, LeBlanc recounts her story of abuse and sexual molestation as a child. So, her memories are from childhood and are exactly how she remembers them, as a child. Years later, when LeBlanc retells her story to her mother, her mother remembers a specific event quite differently. The facts don’t add up. But memoir isn’t about facts. It’s about LeBlanc coming to terms with the past and her memoir tells the reader how she did that. And that’s what matters!

  • Memoir isn’t just one-size fits all. Within the memoir genre there are different types, according to Susy Flory, who is both a writer and a teacher of memoir. I will list six types she mentions in her workshops, giving an example for each:
  • Classic (an unusual life): Educated by Tara Westover.
  • Fish Out of Water: The Very Worst Missionary by Jamie Wright.
  • Spiritual/Transformational: Undone by Michele Cushatt.
  • Devotional: My Utmost: A Devotional Memoir by Macy Halford.
  • Public/Professional: Becoming by Michelle Obama.
  • Travel: Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck.

In each one of these types, the author takes a universal theme and sets out to argue for that theme with his/her story. It’s that universal that attracts the reader. Reminding us as writers, again, that there’s more to memoir than just vignettes of the memoirist’s life.

This really is the tip of the iceberg of things I’ve learned in the last 1½ years. I’m simply passing along to you a few pointers to both help and encourage you as you write or consider writing memoir.

Let me conclude by sharing with you the main books and resources that have helped me.


  • The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith.
  • Handling the Truth by Beth Kephart.
  • The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr.


Happy writing!

Connie Mae Inglis has a passion to share stories. She has spent much of the last 30 years in Southeast Asia with her husband and children, serving as a literacy specialist, teacher, and editor. This cross-cultural living has fed her curiosity and given her lots of material for telling stories, always with the desire to offer restoration hope. Since the publishing of her novel, Rewriting Adam, Connie has started writing a memoir and, as a pre-cursor, published a podcast titled, “Born on a Bridge.” You can find Connie at:

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